Albright's first visit will test Arab ties U.S. risks losing credibility among Muslim countries

September 09, 1997|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Even if everything goes right for Madeleine K. Albright with the Israelis and Palestinians -- an unlikely prospect -- the secretary of state will confront an array of tough problems and skeptical leaders elsewhere on her first Middle East trip, which starts today.

Seldom since the end of the Persian Gulf war in 1991 has such a level of strains existed between Arabs and Israelis and between Arabs and the United States, analysts say.

Moreover, some Arab countries are beginning to make friendly gestures toward America's two nemeses, Iran and Iraq.

These trends could have a major impact on the United States because of its historic friendship with Israel and its role as both mediator of the Arab-Israeli conflict and guardian of Middle East oil.

"Things, I think, are changing overall in the region, not just in the Arab-Israeli component of the region," says Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"If things go completely sour on the Arab-Israeli component of it, it will further affect and erode America's standing [and] its ability to make coalitions" to advance other U.S. interests.

Albright will visit Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and possibly Lebanon after leaving Israel and the Palestinian area. She has avoided traveling to the region until now so as not to be drawn into fruitless shuttle diplomacy, but her delay has raised the stakes now that she is finally going.

Albright's chief intent is to reduce distrust between Israel and the Palestinians enough to get negotiations started again after two recent suicide bombing attacks against Israelis and bitter disputes over expansion of Jewish settlements.

Briefing reporters yesterday, a senior State Department official said Albright's aim is to get both sides "back to basics" -- which means trading land for peace.

Elsewhere on her trip, she will encounter echoes of tension from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute -- partly because recent U.S. actions have fed a perception in some quarters that Washington is siding with Israel.

Her toughest encounter may be with Syrian President Hafez el Assad, who halted talks with Israel last year.

Some experts see recent violence in southern Lebanon as a sign of impatience by Syria, which largely controls Lebanon. Meanwhile, there are signs of an end to the Syria-Iraq feud, undercutting the U.S.-led coalition against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Assad refused to strike a peace agreement with Israel even under the previous Labor government, which was more willing than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to relinquish the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau won by Israel in the 1967 war.

Despite this tension, there's a glimmer of hope. First, Assad feels his position threatened by the warming relationship between Israel and Turkey.

Second, Netanyahu may now feel frustrated by the Palestinian talks and prefer to pursue peace with Syria. But if Albright wants to facilitate that possibility, says former U.S. envoy to Israel Samuel Lewis, she may be forced into the kind of shuttle diplomacy she wants to avoid.

Longtime U.S. ally Egypt, meanwhile, has drawn increasing criticism from strongly pro-Israel members of Congress, including threats of cuts in U.S. aid.

Saudi Arabia also poses problems for Albright. The Saudis, who cooperated behind the scenes with the peace process, are threatening to boycott a U.S.-backed regional economic conference in Qatar in November.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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